For several years prior to July 31, 2016, I had a full time job in Australia and also a full-time hobby. That hobby was calling US Airways Dividend Miles and booking some of the most ridiculous and ambitious award travel I have ever undertaken.
A small part of me died with that program but I did get plenty of free time back, although Tiffany’s bathroom hasn’t been as clean since.
Of course, before, during, and ever since that time I’ve spent plenty of time talking to multiple frequent flyer program phone agents at all times of the day and night, in all parts of the world. In total, I’ve probably spent weeks both speaking to them, being on hold, and hanging up and calling again for a better result.
Their style, speed, and abilities vary enormously. From Avianca LifeMiles, which was like something from a very bad comedy skit, to Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, whose no-nonsense efficiency ticketed a multi-sector, multi-carrier award in less than three minutes.
You’ll often see advice online that if an agent is unable or unwilling to do or find something you were expecting they could, to ‘HUACA,’ or ‘Hang Up And Call Again’.
Here are some important things to remember for your next award booking by phone, for something you cannot do online.
Do: Be polite and respectful
It can be very frustrating when you’ve been on hold for a very long time, and you would much rather be doing something else. Dinner might be burning on the stove, or you might be late for work but don’t take out these frustrations on whoever eventually answers. You need their assistance, and they are just doing their job.
You don’t need to waste further time exchanging many pleasantries or small talk but they are unlikely to go the extra ‘mile’ for you if you are rude or short with them. If they ask how I am I ask them the same and then launch into the reason for my call.
You do not want to get them off-side when you need their help.
Don’t: Be afraid to take control of the call where appropriate
I loved the agents at US Airways. They were lovely. But often their geography and knowledge of their partner airlines was not the best, to put it very mildly.
When I asked them to search for flights to a particular destination and they seemed to not even know the destination, I didn’t have much faith they would be able to find the exact flights I had very carefully found availability for. So rather than being put on hold again for 10+ minutes while they fumbled around I would take control. I would politely offer flights that ‘I believe may be available,’ using airport and airline codes, and flight numbers.
This saved everyone time and they were usually actually grateful that I made their job a bit easier.
Do: End the call if it is going nowhere
Sometimes no matter how polite or helpful the agent may seem, they are unable or unwilling to do what you called for and your time is being wasted by continuing the call. If they continue to put you on hold for seemingly no reason this may be a sign to end things. Where possible, don’t just hang up while you are on hold. If you’ve hit a stalemate politely say something like ‘okay I’ll have a think about it’ or ‘I might think about something else then.’
Thank them for their help and hang up.
Do: Know what is and isn’t possible
Dividend Miles had rules clearly posted on their award chart and some actual serious restrictions like Maximum Permitted Mileage. Some agents knew and enforced them. Some agents knew them but didn’t bother enforcing them, especially as the North Carolina based agents got closer to the American Airlines merger and may have been out of a job. But some agents didn’t know the rules at all.
So, there weren’t that many limits in what you could and couldn’t book, especially as many of their processes had to be done manually by agents.
Of course, programs like AAdvantage and KrisFlyer are generally extremely strict on their rules. They have very competent agents and computer-generated processes that cannot be overrode by standard agents. I wouldn’t dream of asking an AAdvantage agent to book Etihad from North America to Asia, and expect to pay a single award rate, no matter how many agents I spoke to.
You could call 100 times and they will still say no because they can’t do this even if they want to (which they don’t!). As technology has improved to manage routing rules and pricing itineraries, there’s far less opportunity to ‘game’ the system than there used to be.
Don’t: Forget who you spoke to!
If you are hanging up and calling again repeatedly, depending on the time of day/night and size of the call centre you may speak to the exact same agent repeatedly. If you have a sheet of paper/memo with your preferred routes written down, it’s a good idea to write down the name of the agent when they answer. Don’t be afraid to politely ask for the agent’s name if you don’t hear it as they answer. It can be extremely embarrassing to launch into saying ‘I want to book XXX’ and they quickly respond with ‘yes I know I told you it wasn’t available two minutes ago!’
Wait 60 seconds before dialling again, to ensure that agent picks up another caller first!
Do: Escalate when you are confident you are correct
I’ve become pretty well versed at the award charts and routing rules of the various programs I book award travel through so I’m fairly confident of what is and isn’t allowed. I once booked a Virgin Atlantic flight through Virgin Australia Velocity program and the agent insisted fees and taxes of over $500 were payable.
I knew Velocity did not impose fuel surcharges on awards so told the agent so. They insisted that they did. I politely asked the agent to escalate this to a supervisor. She came back saying the supervisor had recalculated the fees and taxes and the new figure was…
I shudder to think how many previous passengers were slugged this huge fuel surcharge incorrectly, because the agent didn’t know the rules of their own program.
Don’t: Risk a negative note on your booking or account
The easiest way to do this is to be polite or respectful. If you are rude or abusive, no matter how frustrated you might be that they cannot confirm the seat you believe exists or make the change you want, or understand the routing rules like you do, you risk that agent ending the call.
But even worse they may put a note in your booking or your account that you are requesting something you are not allowed.
Then it’s game over and you’ll never get what you want.
Do: Know when to admit defeat
Playing the ‘agent roulette’ of hanging up and calling again can be fun and exciting. Especially when ‘your number comes up’ quickly. But it can become tiring and frustrating the longer you spend on the phone and the more agents you have to speak to.
You need to put a value on your time.
Say you believe you were incorrectly charged 1,000 more miles than you should have been. If you need to spend two hours on hold on the phone in order to rectify this, and you value those miles at say, $15, then what’s more important to you?
Technology will eventually mean most, if not all tasks airline phone agents do can be done online. The margin and flexibility of the rules will be almost zero. But for now, there are still some things that can only be done by phone, and a few small adjustments can make a dramatic difference to your call center experience.
Remember these key methods and you’ll have the best chance of getting what you want.
What is your strategy when calling a loyalty program?